Fantasy Drama Mystery

“I know I can do it, ” Beth assured Craig as she dropped to her knees with palms clenched, “Look it’s a glorious day. There’ll be a following wind all the way, so what could possibly go wrong?”

Although Craig had checked the forecast, and Beth was correct in her interpretation of the weather, he was still sceptical of her competence to handle Pelican alone on a twelve-hour trip.

Despite her having sailed with him for many years, he knew only too well, how complacent yachtsmen – not appreciating the unpredictability of the fickle English weather – could easily find themselves in difficulty.

“Oh for Goodness sake Craig,” snapped their mutual friend John. “She’s not asking to circumnavigate the globe! Anyway…” he protested, “We’ll be in radio contact with her all the way, so what’s the problem?” 

Ushering his friend aboard his own 36 ft. yacht Mistral John’s tone softened, “She’s got to do it sometime mate…” He patted Craig patronisingly on the back, “So now is as good a time as any to start.”

Encouraged by the impatient gestures from the rest of the small group, it appeared that Craig would have to capitulate to the determination of the fiery red head he had married, and crew for John on Mistral. All the same, his apprehension over relinquishing command of Pelican was not diminished.

Fantasy, Mistral and Pelican eventually cast off – destination Falmouth. 

Beth exhilarated to be finally sailing solo, waved an affectionate farewell to Brixham. She watched until the marina slowly disappeared into the distance.

Twenty minutes later, rounding the infamous Berry Head, she filled her lungs with the unpolluted air, as the gentle breeze caressed her lightly freckled cheeks.

With two years of navigation classes behind her Beth was well acquainted with the necessity to plot the boat’s progress at all times. Although visibility was good she sensibly took bearings hourly and registered them religiously in the ‘ship’s log.’

Conditions were perfect; Pelican glided gracefully through the water assisted by an easterly breeze, which carried the 28ft yacht effortlessly.

Beth decided she was going to try and complete the whole journey entirely under sail; preferring the tranquillity of the gentle lapping of water to the monotonous thumping of the engine.

She glanced at her watch. Forty minutes since his last call. She inhaled deeply filling her lungs with the sea breeze. Craig had finally refrained from constantly summoning her on the radio. Probably persuaded by the omnipotent John. She suspected to her relief that he had finally relaxed.

Being so engrossed in plotting her course, it was some time before she realised that Fantasy and Mistral were making more headway than she was in Pelican. As the gap increased, she muttered aloud, “Typical of John”.

She recalled that he and Rob, also friend of theirs, skippering Fantasy had been involved in a long-standing dispute over which boat was the faster. But she was quite happy with her own pace.

She slipped on her jacket; the breeze was definitely freshening. The foresail began to flap as the wind altered direction. For the first time since departing she felt slightly unsettled, convinced that Craig would be more than a little concerned at leaving her so far behind. She dismissed the thoughts; certain he would insist that John should slow down soon.

The gentle rhythmic sloshing of the waters against the hull was slowly being substituted by an ever-increasing swell. She wondered if she should reduce the sail area.

Clambering down the galley steps she rummaged eagerly through a locker for the wind meter. Back in the cockpit her suspicions were confirmed; force four, gusting five and increasing steadily.

White horses were forming as the previously diaphanous blue seas undertook a more ominous green hue. Even after reefing the mainsail she suspected she was still carrying too much sail.

 Start Point was no longer visible and she was rapidly losing sight of land as a squall suddenly advanced engulfing the small yacht. She could just barely make out their two white sails in the distance.

Snapping on a safety line, she made her way to the foredeck to change the cruising chute for the working gib. As she was attempting to hoist the heavier working sail, a momentary lapse of concentration allowed a strong gust of wind to whip the sheet cleanly from her fumbling fingers. A painful rope burn appeared as evidence of her negligence. To her horror the errant rope thrashed furiously as the sail wrapped itself around the rigging. It took all Beth’s strength to haul in the offending tangled mess, leaving only the mainsail set to steady the boat.

Now compelled to start the engine she cranked the key once…it sounded sick. Then twice. It spluttered before emitting one final suffocating cough. Consequently no amount of cajoling would persuade it to start.

Beth was now becoming more anxious that she might be entering hazardous waters – particularly as the compass seemed to be dancing erratically. So she decided she was left with no alternative but to call up Mistral and ask Craig to turn back for her. 

Swallowing her pride, she tentatively picked up the hand set, “Mistral, Mistral, Mistral this is yacht Pelican Pelican.” Releasing the button, she waited… Silence. Not the faintest crackle. 

She repeated the procedure. Again there was no reply.

She frantically stabbed at the tuning buttons in a desperate attempt to locate anyone transmitting on the airways. Still nothing. The radio was completely dead. 

Checking the chart she tried to estimate how far from land she was. Her last reading had placed her about four miles from the Eddystone Rocks, an area Craig had forewarned her of. 

Becoming disorientated by the failing visibility she swallowed hard on a paper dry throat.

The boat began to shudder intermittently as the bow repeatedly dug in to the murky waters. Huge waves broke aggressively over the side decks.

The ineffable force of the sea tossed Pelican like a cork on a windswept lake. The galley – unprepared for heavy weather – was affected by the pounding, as pans flew around haphazardly.

A harsh wind was biting at her face, her composure diminished rapidly with each unrelenting shower of spray. A steady salty trickle dripped off the end of her nose. She succumbed to wiping away the offending droplets with the back of her sleeve.

Suddenly she felt herself being engulfed by an enormous black shadow, scooping Pelican up like the beating wings of a giant eagle. She shivered momentarily with the dramatic change in temperature, from warm to icy cold.

Looming immediately ahead of her bows was the most terrifying sight she had ever witnessed. It could only be the Eddystone Lighthouse – towering at least 150 ft above her – shaking its giant warning finger at her. Threatening her audacity to encroach its territory.

The notoriously treacherous rocks must inevitably be directly beneath the hull. Indisputably at the mercy of the sea she dropped hysterically to the floor, powerless, cowering from the huge flashing eye. Ready to accept without question her fate.

Suddenly, a mysterious voice interrupted the nightmare, urging, “Take the line!”

She gasped peering between trembling fingers.

Again she heard it, “Madam heave in the line quickly!”

Without hesitation she was on her feet. Over the stern she observed the distinguished figure of a slight middle-aged man clad in an unusual navy tunic. The sleeves of a rather flamboyant white shirt billowed in the wind. He appeared with the rise and fall of each foaming crest, disappearing intermittently into the enormous troughs.

He lunged for the boarding ladder gripping it in the crook of his elbow whilst urgently waving a very tatty length of hemp rope in his free hand.

“No time to lose!” he yelled above the incessant roar of the sea, “You’ll be on the rocks.”

 Salvation an arms length away, Beth leapt at the rope and fastened it to a cleat. Instantly he was hauling himself out of what appeared to be a small wooden skiff and up the ladder into Pelican’s cockpit.

He promptly assumed control, hardening in on the mainsail, giving the boat more drive. The boat heeled as he took evasive action, spinning the wheel to starboard. There was a sudden rush of air as a split second later the lighthouse blasted past them.

 As they cleared the beacon the wind instantly abated with the passing of the squall. 

Clear of immediate danger his attention focused on Beth, “You’re not familiar with these waters then?” he asked inquisitively as he eyed her cut off jeans with distaste (although they were not dissimilar to his own cropped trousers) “You voyage unaccompanied?”

“I …I didn’t think I was so close,” she answered truthfully. “ It came from nowhere. And, I’m not alone, my companions ahead have faster boats than Pelican. I lost sight of them.”

“Ah Pelican!” he gushed, “’Tis a fine name for a vessel.” Stroking a greying goatee beard he surveyed the yacht, “A strange rig though?” he mumbled inwardly.

“No not really,” corrected Beth, “It’s called ‘Bermudan Rig,’ it’s very common.” She realised he was staring intently at her, making her feel rather uncomfortable. Nevertheless she appreciated his presence. “You know this area very well then?” she enquired distracting his interest from her clothing.

“I’ve sailed these waters long since...and far beyond,” he boasted.

Beth recognised the accent as Devonshire but the dialect was bizarre. There was something peculiar about him. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was troubling her but she didn’t care, convinced he’d saved her life.

“Do you live around here?” she asked seeking polite conversation. 

“On that there island yonder,” he answered pointing towards the shore, which had mysteriously reappeared.

“ I didn’t know there was an island near here!” she exclaimed.

“Yes Madam ’tis rather small. I don’t spend much time there these days as I am elsewhere occupied with the wretched Spanish fleet.”

“The fishing quotas!” sighed Beth with indifference. She always deemed it sensible to avoid discussing politics as it ultimately ended in arguments, and today was no exception.

Ignoring her comment he went on to ask, “What do you call yourself?”

Beth concealed a chuckle, “Oh my name! It’s Beth.”

He cocked his head to one side looking bemused.

“Beth ... as in Elizabeth”, she enlightened.

A look of recognition unfolded on his face “Ah! Elizabeth as our gracious Lady herself, and hair the colour of golden sunset as is hers.”

Beth looked intrigued. “Who?”

“Why Her Majesty of course!” he declared with contempt “ You are of this land are you not?”

“Oh the Queen!” exclaimed Beth now totally confused. As far as she was aware the Queen’s hair had never remotely resembled hers. “Yes Elizabeth, like The Queen.”

Beth was wishing Craig were with her. He would know how to tactfully get rid of him. She glanced up at the sun which had thankfully resurfaced and was now blazing, causing her to squint.

“The weather has stabilised” she said “ I can’t thank you enough, but I think I will be ok now.” It sounded unconvincing as she prepared to hoist the cruising chute again.

“What strange cloth is this?” he enquired inspecting the sail as he relieved her of the task.

“Terylene I think” replied Beth showing little interest.

“ Hmm.” he pondered.

The choppy waters that minutes earlier had surged ferociously against the rocks seemed distant.

With a deep bow he announced,“ I think I can take my leave now Elizabeth. You are well clear of the dangers that surround these shores.”

As he untied his small boat Beth extended her right arm offering a departing handshake.

She was taken quite by surprise when he dropped to one knee and gently pressed the back of her hand to his lips. “I bid you a fond farewell my Lady Elizabeth.”

Beth felt her cheeks glow, “Thank you kind sir” she responded respectfully.

He descended the ladder and settled himself on the hard wooden bench seat, before pushing himself away with a heavy oar. Her gaze was drawn to his shiny, black, square-toed shoes, noticeable principally by the fact that the ornate buckle was missing from the left one.

Beth watched in wonder as he rowed away into the distance. It suddenly dawned on her that she hadn’t even had the courtesy to ask his name. She yelled out after him, “I forgot … what’s your name?” 

She could just decipher the name trailing back on the breeze, “ Francis.”

Then he was gone.

The sea once more shone like glass with barely enough wind to fill the sails. Perspiration trickled down Beth’s back. Glancing ahead she could now see the unmistakable shape of Mistral with Craig waving from her stern.

She turned swiftly towards the instantly recognisable crackle of the radio, “Pelican, Pelican Pelican, this is yacht Mistral.” She hastily grabbed the receiver.

Craig’s voice sounded remarkably calm, “How’s it going then sailor,” he joked.

For a second she was speechless before her voice broke releasing an uncharacteristic torrent of abuse. Craig couldn’t understand why she was so distressed. She proceeded to relate the extreme weather she had encountered. Eventually Craig showed some concern. “But Beth the weather’s been fabulous all the way!”

“No it hasn’t!” protested his distraught wife. “If it weren’t for a chap off the island coming to my aid, you’d probably be cashing in my life insurance policy!”

“What island?” demanded Craig, fearful that she must be suffering the effects of sunstroke.

“The island up in the bay,” snapped Beth.

“Oh Drake Island!” Craig’s concern even more evident. “ No one lives there, its deserted.”

Beth released the button on the handset and collapsed onto the seat sobbing uncontrollably. She dropped her head in her hands refusing to answer the repeated calls from Craig.

“It did happen!” she cried aloud.

Suddenly everything began to fall into place.

Francis … the strange way he spoke… the red headed Elizabeth. Then she remembered pointing out to Craig the coincidence – when viewing placard describing Francis Drake’s Golden Hind in Brixham – that it had been re-named. It had previously been called Pelican.

I’m going mad she thought just as the glint of something jammed in the scuppers caught her eye. She bent down to retrieve it drying her tears with the back of her hand.  

 Plucking the object up, she examined it carefully. A silver shoe buckle He must have caught it when boarding the boat, she smiled.

This was an unimaginable experience. One she would take with her to the grave.

She waved gratefully towards the little island in Plymouth Sound, clutching the buckle to her breast.

“ Good-bye Sir Francis Drake,” she sighed. “ No one will ever believe me!”

September 15, 2020 14:16

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